Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
My children were not vaccinated against chickenpox. When they were young, we were living in Europe, where the medical community does not encourage immunization against this disease. Consequently, my kids developed chickenpox at an early age, during one month in which over 30 children in our neighborhood became infected.
I had, in fact, planned to have the children immunized for chickenpox on our next visit to the U.S., but the infection came before that happened. My oldest child, who was 4 at the time, contracted chickenpox from a friend at preschool. He hardly suffered at all; there were perhaps only 20 or 25 skin lesions in total. Not so for my youngest two children, then aged 2 and a half and 16 months. Because their exposure came from their older brother at home ("prolonged" exposures in the home can lead to more severe disease than casual or onetime exposures) they were both covered from head to toe with the itchy spots. Even the membranes of their mouths and eyes were affected, and they were listless with fever. While no serious complications developed, they were decidedly miserable and uncomfortable for days.
Living in Europe and talking with other parents, I encountered a good bit of skepticism about the chickenpox vaccine in use in the U.S. While hardly anyone considered the vaccine to be dangerous, most felt it wasn't necessary to vaccinate a child against what they perceived to be a "harmless" disease that even "strengthened" their child's immune system.
Even if chickenpox doesn't cause lasting problems in most people, the condition is far from harmless for some. It can lead to serious illness in adults, very young infants, and those whose immune systems are suppressed. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), before the advent of the chickenpox vaccine, about 11,000 people were hospitalized each year and about 100 deaths occurred each year in the U.S. as a result of infection with the chickenpox virus (varicella-zoster virus, or VZV).
After caring for my youngest two children when they had chickenpox, I can personally attest to the fact that the virus can cause a very unpleasant illness with fever, rash, and constant itching. Scratching of the skin lesions can lead to secondary infections of the skin that may even result in scarring. In adults, years after the initial infection, the virus can reactivate to produce the painful blisters of shingles. In rare cases, chickenpox can cause pneumonia or a potentially fatal brain infection.
Like any vaccine, the chickenpox vaccine may lead to mild side effects and to serious side effects in extremely rare cases. However, pediatric experts agree that getting the vaccine is much safer than getting a serious disease as a result of chickenpox.
Reference: U.S. CDC, "Vaccine Information Statement, VZV vaccine," 1/10/07.